An acoustic Wednesday enlivens Center City Park

by Lindsay Craven

An acoustic Wednesday enlivens Center City Park

There’s a cool breeze blowing through Center City Park made cooler by the acrobatic fountains shooting off near by. Benjy Johnson and Clay Howard stand at the center of an audience of workers on their lunch break, kids on their summer break and stay-at-home moms with their kids. The lawn is decorated with blankets, coolers, foldout chairs and picnic setups. The sounds of the acoustic duo drift through the air and provide a break from a monotonous work or vacation day. Johnson and Howard have been sharing the stage for 20 years. Now they split their time between playing covers as a duo and playing separately in their individual bands. Johnson fronts Benj-O-Matic, his original rock band of eight years. “We’re somewhere between Slayer and the Grateful Dead,” Johnson said. “Our band will stretch songs and play long jams but we’re not a jam band.” Alongside his musical ventures, Johnson owns and runs Earth Tones Recording Studio in Greensboro and teaches guitar lessons. Howard spends his spare time leading his band Stratocruiser based in Chapel Hill as well as acting as a contributing music writer for Howard said that Stratocruiser ends up playing a lot of power-pop festivals but they are more of an original rock band. Today is all about Johnson and Howard’s cover music though. As they play one familiar classic rock song after another they receive nods and smiles from audience members around the park. They take turns on vocals but both are equipped with guitars. At one point they open the set list up to audience requests; the guys at the table next to me throw out Jay-Z to which Johnson politely declines, as the rapper is not listed in their lyric and guitar chord collection. An older man to my right makes a more realistic suggestion of Jimmy Buffet. Johnson and Howard oblige with “Margaritaville.” “We don’t practice any of these songs at home,” Howard said. “We just try to make it like we’re playing in our living room.” This is exactly what the band achieves as they play classics like “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” by Lynyrd Skynrd, “Midnight Rider” by the Allman Brothers Band and “Steal My Kisses” by Ben Harper. While they play they receive several onstage visits from their children, who have been playing soccer out in the grass. Johnson fathers three rambunctious boys and Howard has three girls who randomly attach themselves to him during the set. At one point Johnson calls out for Sam, a little boy at the park celebrating his fifth birthday. The crowd sings “Happy Birthday” and Sam does a quick tumbling act for us. While Johnson and Howard play, several people walk to the front to wave and say hello. They continue on to play Peter Frampton’s “Show Me the Way,” “Last Dance With Mary Jane” by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. As the show begins to draw to a close the aroma of Chick fil-A, Subway and soul food takeout start to fade away and the audience starts heading back to where they came from. “The classic rock stuff goes over well with the lunch crowd,” Howard said. “We have original music but we don’t play it because people don’t want to hear it. If you want to get paid to play around here, you play covers.” The plan seems to work well for the duo as they finish up the set playfully performing “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band,

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Benjy Johnson (left) and Clay Howard perform for Tunes @ Noon in Center City Park on July 15. (photo by Lindsay Craven)